Sep 25th 2014

Vaccinations: An Epidemic of Misinformation

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Would you have your plumber perform brain surgery on your wife? Or have an accomplished Shakespearean actor with no flight training pilot the Boeing 747 you are taking across the Pacific? How about hiring a shark biologist to design and build your house? These suggestions are absurd because we all know that being qualified and competent in one area of expertise does not transfer to all others. But we seem to routinely forget this simple truth.

That is why those who oppose climate change become authorities in meteorology and climatology, suddenly endowed with more expertise than a scientist who has devoted her life to the subjects. The deniers magically know more than thousands of qualified scientists from nearly 200 countries. This faux-expertise brings with it a deep irony as well. Many doubters cite the Earth's past cycles of glaciation and warming to discount what we are seeing today as nothing but natural variation. How do the skeptics know of that climate history? From the very scientists whose conclusions they now doubt! As if the scientists themselves are unaware of their own conclusions about the earth's past, or if they are aware, did not take that history into account. Deniers preferentially believe one set of facts from those scientists but dismiss other facts as liberal nonsense. I could not make this stuff up.

False claim to expertise is why actors feel qualified as authorities on various matters unrelated to the film industry. Standing in front of a camera does not confer any special expertise on anything other than reading lines, but that stops few from venturing farther afield. The problem with claiming expertise outside one's true competency is that the ensuring claims are often ridiculous, misinformed, ignorant or downright dumb.

The latest eruption of star-studded stupidity comes from comedian Rob Schneider(whose comedy I much enjoy). Schneider opposes mandatory vaccination, using the patently incorrect and absurd argument that "the efficacy of these shots has not been proven." He added, "And the toxicity of these things -- we're having more and more side effects. We're having more and more autism."

I just want to scream in frustration.

These claims from Schneider are not the benign utterances of an imbecile; they are deadly in their impact. Let us examine these two outrageously incorrect assertions. First, the issue of efficacy: Unlike the absurd claim made by Schneider, vaccines have proven beyond any and all doubt to be extraordinarily efficacious. Vaccines are the most important, effective, and safest medical advance in all of human history. Vaccinations have led to the eradication of smallpox and the near-eradication of polio. Any time you might have even a twinge of a thought against vaccinations, think of the millions of people who suffered terrible disability and death prior to the development of vaccines for these horrible diseases. And the millions of people now free from those scourges because of vaccines.

Every year vaccines save 3 million lives among children younger than 5 years old every year by preventing diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and measles; if adults are included, vaccines save up to 6 million lives annually. If you oppose vaccinations, I believe you are for the death of an additional 3 million children every year. The Third Edition of the State of the World's Vaccines and Immunization reports that:

"Between 2000 and 2007, the number of children dying from measles dropped by 74% worldwide, from an estimated 750,000 to an estimated 197,000 children. In addition, immunization prevents sickness as well as lifelong disability, including measles-related deafness, blindness, and mental disability."

The study also states that:

"In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzing an estimated 350,000 children every year (close to 1000 cases a day). By the end of 2007, polio had been eradicated in three of WHO's six regions - the Region of the Americas, the European Region, and the Western Pacific Region. Following implementation of the rubella elimination strategy in the Americas, the number of reported cases of rubella declined by 98% between 1998 and 2006. By 2000, 135 countries had eliminated neonatal tetanus and by 2004, annual deaths from neonatal tetanus had fallen to an estimated 128 000, down from 790,000 deaths in 1988."

If you oppose vaccinations, try to justify that position with the reality that in the absence of vaccinations polio would paralyze 10,000 children every year; German measles would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 kids, and diphtheria would be a common cause of death in school children. Anytime you have an urge to oppose vaccination, think of your kid dying of diphtheria. If you oppose vaccinations, I believe you are for 10,000 kids each year becoming paralyzed.

The deep, terrible irony of the anti-vaccination movement is that the incredible success of vaccines has caused the uninformed to forget how important, successful and safe vaccination programs are; and how vital vaccines are to preventing horrible diseases from reemerging. And reemerge they do: Because of the anti-vaccination movement, measles is once again rearing its ugly head. Measles is highly contagious and spreads rapidly among the non-vaccinated. There is no treatment for measles, only prevention. In 2000 measles was nearly eradicated in the United States; with a drop in immunization due to unjustified concerns about vaccines, the United States is witnessing this year the largest measles outbreak since 1996. Ignorance, false claims to expertise and scientific illiteracy are threatening our children's health.

And now to Schneider's claim that vaccines are linked to autism. Again, I desperately want to scream in frustration at the top of my lungs. This bizarre claim comes from just one paper published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet, subsequently withdrawn for suspicions of scientific fraud, and fully discredited by later study. Repeat after me: There is no evidence none, zero, absolutely nothing to link vaccinations with autism. It is a myth, a fallacy, factually incorrect. Yet tens of thousands of parents risk their children's health by withholding critical vaccinations. Like Schneider, many parents still to this day insist that vaccines cause autism, even in the complete absence of any evidence to support the claim with the withdrawal of the original paper. You might as well claim that vaccines cause baldness; no, no, I've got the perfect claim: Vaccines are ineffective but cause global warming! In that we combine belief in something for which there is no evidence and disbelief in another other for which there is indisputable proof. Perfect.

Vaccines save lives, millions of lives, and prevent untold suffering and misery. Vaccines are safe and effective, as proven by billions of doses given with no harm. The efficacy of vaccines is beyond dispute with the eradication of some of humankind's greatest scourges and the precipitous drop in diseases once common. Of course absolutely nothing is 100 percent safe and effective; sitting on your couch with a helmet does not guarantee an airplane tail won't fall through your roof and kill you. But the awesome, amazing benefits of vaccines vastly, incredibly, outrageously outweigh any potential risk. Opposing vaccines is foolhardy, dangerous, irresponsible, and just plain ignorant. Please, please, please stop this misguided and misinformed effort to prevent vaccinations. If you want to oppose vaccines, go to an island with all others of your ilk and witness the devastation as preventable diseases ravage your population. But leave the rest of us sane people to the task of saving lives with the greatest medical advance ever seen in human history.




  

 


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